Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's only words

Tony Abbott's argument against the formal acknowledgement of traditional owners at public gatherings is that it's 'tokenistic'. (Note to Tone: the people who do it do usually actually mean it. If they didn't, they wouldn't bother to do it. QED.)

He seems to be offering this, as so many concern trolls do, as a good argument for not doing it at all. I note that, monarchist and Catholic that he is, he's not making the same argument for acknowledging any monarchs or vice-monarchs present at the beginning of a speech, or for Parliamentary prayers.

Yet surely the same argument applies. I bet there are more people in Australia working hard for the improvement of Aboriginal people's lives than there are working hard in the cause of retaining the monarchy, for a start. And I bet there are a lot more people who find the prayers and the nods to governors that they are obliged to make 'tokenistic' than people who feel the same about acknowledgement of traditional owners.

But that line isn't really worth arguing with anyway; nor do I have anything to say about Wilson Tuckey except that he and people like him are the price we pay for democracy. I'm more interested in the widely-held assumption behind Abbott's pronouncement that 'mere' words are worth nothing.

This from a politician, and one who's worked as a journalist and written several books to boot, is particularly ironic, but that's by the way as well. What floors me is that even people whose stock-in-trade is language seem to feel quite happy about trashing language as essentially worthless. It's nothing more than intellectual laziness: an acceptance of the notion that words and deeds are somehow the opposite of each other, each with a clear moral value and no prizes for guessing which is which. The lure of the false dichotomy is strong, I know -- it makes opining so much easier -- but you'd think a Rhodes Scholar would have been taught at some point in his education how to avoid its simplistic snares.

Because speech is an act, and so is thought, and so is decision-making about how you will behave. To acknowledge traditional owners at a public function is to remind everyone present of Aboriginal history and culture. It's a small reversal of erasure and a little raiser of consciousness. Recognition is an act, and so is the expression of respect.


cristy said...

Yes, it is very similar to the ridiculous dismissal of 'political correctness' - a complete denial of the power of words to shape our reality.

A sexist or racist joke does far far more than just make a few idiots laugh.

Legal Eagle said...

I always think of that John Safran sketch where he got a bunch of Wurundjeri people together to go to a house in Fitzroy which had a plaque out the front saying, We acknowledge that the Wurundjeri people are the traditional owners of this land. The Wurundjeri mob turned up and said, "If you think this is our land, can we stay for a few weeks?" The horrified looks on the faces of the family said it all. They may have acknowledged the traditional owners...but they didn't want to give a random bunch of traditional owners any *real* rights on their land! There's an extent to which such words designed to make people feel better without actually having to do anything other than make nice statements. So it is tokenism in some respects.

But to my mind that doesn't mean we should do away with the token gesture - I'd rather we follow up the token gesture with real rights (i.e. property rights which are the same strength as everyone else's!)

R.H. said...

Exploitation was part of the early Industrial Revolution, indigenes suffered, but so did little kids working in factories eighteen hours a day; who'll say sorry for that?
It's never mentioned; capitalism keeps it quiet, preferring a focus on the aborigines.
All this adored modern technology traces directly back to children being killed in factories, but who'll give up their mobile phone? Who'll give up their smart inner city address stolen from the poor? How about sorry for that?

It wasn't my class that robbed the aborigines, it was the middle class and upwards.
We don't need to say sorry, we were victims too.

Anthony said...

Great stuff, Pav.

Legal Eagle
It makes for funny telly but it's a glib gotcha effort by Safran on the level of 'if you support the refugees well then why don't you let them stay in your house'? There's a difference between individual actions and support for public policy. I'm sure those people would have supported real rights.

Any cursory understanding of the industrial revolution will reveal that workers in colonial countries were later advantaged at the expense of the colonised. Try textiles in India for a starter.
And I can't see how being a victim removes the need for an apology for a separate event. Or how apologies and justice are zero sum games.
(You're not 60s Keith Windschuttle by any chance?)

Frances said...

"my class" "middle class and upwards".
Great work, R.H. We really need more of these divisive British Empah attitudes here.
Keep it up.

Elisabeth said...

It's never 'only words', and particularly coming from a politician. Words are signifiers, they are our currency, our way of communicating with one another, they matter, all of them, except those that are thrown out like excrement and belong in the toilet. Where they can be flushed away and turned into useful fertilizer.

Thanks, Pav. I couldn't agree with you more.

R.H. said...

Read what I said. At the same time as aboriginies were being trodden on in this country by the British six-year-old kids were being mangled in their factories. Do you know that? It was Capitalism: profit, the beginnings of Capitalism -and the middle class. Shameful, the whole thing, but only the aborigines get noted.
As an unskilled worker on paltry wages all my life and slung into jail one time for having no money in my pockets I feel solidarity with aborigines and happen to have lived with them in cheap lodgings. Those lodgings have since been 'gentrified' forcing out the lower orders who relied on them. They've had to scatter.
Look at who lives there now, in St Kilda, Yarraville, Richmond, Fitzroy...

Really, I hear all this squawking about aboriginies,refugees and so on and can't take it seriously.
It's from the same all-talk crowd of 200 years ago.
Nothing has changed, not really, the focaccia has replaced the cucumber sandwich, that's all.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

No, RH, you read what I said in the post, which you don't appear to have bothered to do. The post does not mention 'apology' at any point; it's about something quite different. As I've said to you more than once before, please don't comment here unless it's relevant to the discussion and you can manage to stay courteous to the other commenters and to me.

Brett said...

I think it's precisely because politicians understand the power of words and symbols that they reject them as 'mere'. That is, they're 'mere' when the words and symbols don't align with their own cherished values and beliefs. (Howard was a great one for this, rejecting everything from 'Sorry' to the torture convention while embracing Anzac Day and the baggy green cap.) And as long as they can keep the debate focused on 'mere' symbolism, more practical measures never get a look-in.

Nigel said...

I agree that 'welcome to countries' are a reminder, and a very important reminder at that. Yes, I do worry that it's become part of the furniture - for some, a meaningless tradition. But this whole issue is about visibility. And what better way to be visible than making sure people say these things at the beginning of important events. Of course, following up with action wouldn't go astray, but it all starts with that word: visibility.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your wise words, Pav. (And to R.H., I tried to look at your blog and/or website, and the former has nothing in it, the latter is nonexistent. Who are you? Tony Abbott?)